Of all the players on the Dallas Stars that have taken the ice this season, none have received the amount of criticism as Matt Niskanen. The young defenseman that had shown so much promise two years ago, and lately he's struggled perhaps more that any other player on the team. Yet tonight, he emerged as the unlikely hero for the Stars in the 11th round of the shootout when he lifted a hard wrist shot over Evgeni Nabokov's glove.
The game started off shaky for the Stars as they attempted to match the Sharks physically and energy wise, and opened up the scoring with a nifty tip-in by Mike Ribeiro late in a power play. Yet the Stars found themselves down 2-1 after the first period as they allowed the Sharks to establish their forecheck, and allowed yet another seemingly soft goal. It was an emotional and penalty-filled first period and for a time it seemed as if the Stars were more focused on agitation and physicality than actual execution.
Yet led by a masterful performance by Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott, the Stars mounted an inspired comeback starting in the second period. Dallas outshot the Sharks 29-18 in the second and third periods and dictated play for a large chuck of time in the second half of the game. With Marc Crawford leaning heavily on his top three lines, the Stars were able to sustain pressure keep the Sharks away from their strength: their offensive firepower. Nabokov was masterful throughout the game, challenging the shooters and rarely allowing a rebound opportunity.
Eventually it was the Stars' aggression around the net that was the difference in this game. This was a theme through the game as the Stars had attempted to create as much havoc in front of Nabokov as possible, and had led to several scrums and a number of penalties for both sides. Midway through the third, as Brad Richards skated the puck out from behind the net, James Neal established position in front of the crease. Scott Nichol and Nabokov was more worried about Neal than the puck, and all three crashed to the ice as Richards' shot found the back of the net. Fittingly, the only way the Stars could score was to basically knock the goaltender out of the way.
Yet it was Marty Turco who stole the show in the final ten minutes of regulation, in overtime and then finally in the shootout. With the Sharks mounting a counterattack with the game tied Marty came up huge for the Stars, making 16 saves with the game on the line, including several tremendous stops on the penalty kill late in the game. He also made the save of the season when he stopped a rebound opportunity by reaching behind his back with his glove to snag a shot out of the air.
The shootout was a combination of incredible goaltending and questionable scoring skills; both teams combined for just three goals in 22 opportunities. Turco used the poke check to perfection while Nabokov was confident and forcing shooters to make moves with the puck. It was frustrating to see the Stars come up empty time and time again, but Turco was tremendous as he gave his team a chance at the win. Eventually, Niskanen was able to score when he snapped a big shot over the goalie's glove.
It was a big win for a Stars team that was reeling from two painful losses in the past week, and they'll get a chance to carry over the strong play tonight against Los Angeles.